WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) – Jon Abbate draws his strength and inspiration from the number 5.

Wake Forest’s grieving star linebacker switched his jersey from 40 to 5 this season. And before the fourth quarter of every game, Abbate and the Demon Deacons raise five fingers skyward.

That way, they never forget their biggest fan – Abbate’s late 15-year-old brother Luke, whose death nine months ago wound up pulling the team even tighter than they thought possible.

“When you’re on a team, and something like this happens, it’s not only you,” Abbate said. “It’s also your teammates who deal with it almost as much, just because you are a family.”

The pain of losing the brother who idolized him has fueled Abbate and the 16th-ranked Demon Deacons during the best season in school history – and to a berth in Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference title game against Georgia Tech.

“That really is a testimony to the kind of guy he is,” quarterback Riley Skinner said. “To have something like that happen to his family and in his life, his family used that as motivation and not let that bring him down. He knows his brother’s in a good place with the Lord, and now all he wants to do is play for him. That’s pretty encouraging, and it makes you want to do it, too.”

For years, Luke was a fixture in the Wake Forest post-game locker room, where he’d always ask the Demon Deacons for their gloves. A receiver and linebacker at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Ga., the younger Abbate wore jersey No. 5 with pride.

Then, on Feb. 13, everything changed. Luke was riding home from lacrosse practice with four teammates when their car crashed. He died the next day.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride ever since it happened,” Abbate said. “You think you’re doing good, and then all of a sudden you’ll get a memory or something will remind you of him, and you just break down.”

As Abbate mourned, he found comfort on the football field, the 100-yard-long common ground he and Luke shared.

He dedicated the season to his brother, switched his jersey number to honor his memory, channeled that grief into his play and galvanized the teammates who loved his brother almost as much as he still does.

“The way it’s changed me is to not only to lead as a football player, and not only as a teammate on the football field, but as a teammate off the field,” said Abbate, a junior and three-year starter who leads the team in tackles. “To be there for people in certain circumstances like this. Just every day in life, to be there for people when they need to talk. It’s just taught me to not only be there for people in football, but for other reasons.”

The Demon Deacons have grown tighter, drawing inspiration from the sight of Abbate’s parents at games. Most players attended Luke’s funeral, creating a bond that supersedes football.

“To see his family before every game, things like that, they talk about Luke and they talk about playing for him and he’ll be watching,” Skinner said.

“It really hits you hard, the kind of guy that Jon is and the kind of family that he has. He’s a huge inspiration and he’s a huge leader on our team. Through that and also through the kind of player he is, he’ll give it his all.”

And the Demon Deacons are convinced that nobody would’ve enjoyed their remarkable run more than Luke Abbate.

They say Luke would’ve cherished each of their school-record 10 victories, especially the 24-17 victory over North Carolina that Abbate preserved with an interception in the end zone in the waning seconds.

And no doubt, they insist, Luke would be waiting outside the locker room at Alltel Stadium after the ACC championship game against Georgia Tech, hoping to add more gloves to his collection.

“I think he’d be ecstatic,” Abbate said. “He’d be so pumped up with the way the season has gone.”

AP-ES-11-29-06 1723EST

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